by Inderjeet Parmar
This op-ed was originally published in The Political Quarterly, April 2005: https://scholar.google.co.uk/citations?view_op=view_citation&hl=en&user=guA6qLoAAAAJ&citation_for_view=guA6qLoAAAAJ:qjMakFHDy7sC
Why does Tony Blair unflinchingly support the militaristic foreign policies of President George W. Bush even when other permanent UN Security Council members and other world leaders condemn America’s aggression in Iraq?
This article argues that Blair is on an imperial mission to remake the world, or at least significant parts of it, in alliance with the radical neo-conservative policies of the Bush administration. Blair, it appears, believes that he has become the Queen’s First Minister to preside over the resurrection of a beneficent liberal-imperial world order. It is that sense of mission with its deep roots in Blair’s philosophical, religious and political evolution, as well as an independent analysis of post-1989 global trends, that explains the specific reasons for unflinching support of US aggression in Iraq (as opposed to the general traditional pro-American stances of previous postwar Labour prime ministers, and the long-term bureaucratic interests of the foreign office, military and intelligence establishments).
Echoing Blair’s post-1989 analysis, this article shows that George W. Bush had come to similar conclusions well before he received the Republican nomination ahead of the presidential elections of 2000. The two leaders get along so well precisely because they share independently arrived at global diagnoses and, in considerable measure, prescriptions. This article explores the evolution of Blair’s outlook showing at key points similarities and convergences with that of President Bush, refuting claims that Blair is a mere Bush ‘poodle’ or that, as Nelson Mandela claimed, he is Bush’s ‘foreign minister’. The article shows that Blair is a liberal imperialist who believes that the world needs to be remade by an active Anglo-American alliance.
Bush, Blair, 9/11 and the Global War on Terror
September 11 ought not to be underestimated in its impact on Anglo-American relations and international affairs. While significant shifts in US strategy were evident prior to 9/11, the spectacular effects of the murderous attacks on the World Trade Center—on US public opinion, America’s political class, the press, even liberal intellectuals who formerly were critical of US foreign military interventions (such as Christopher Hitchens)—made politically possible the public pronouncement and implementation of a more robust, unlilateral, pre-emptive and preventive, more lethal foreign military strategy. George W. Bush is heir to the bureaucratic-political-military shift in American thinking after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, as were the Bush Sr and Clinton administrations. But 9/11 made politically possible a reordering of the world and America’s place in it. As noted in a Project for a New American Century document, Rebuilding America’s Defenses, published in September 2000, neo-conservatives felt the need for a ‘catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor’, in order to rush through dramatic changes to America’s foreign policies. At the same time, it is arguable that, had he won the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore would have acted differently. Gore would most likely have followed in the path of the Clinton administration: allied military response with United Nations backing. Would Gore have waged a war on Iraq? Probably not, though of course we shall never know. On the other hand, he would have been under pressure to do so from a Republican Congress and, most probably, from his own Vice-President, Joseph Lieberman, a neo-conservative. In addition, Gore would have had to grapple with the traditional problem of Democrats and national security matters: trying to appear strong under pressure of Republican claims of their inherent lack of will.1 But, with a divided public opinion, and a fracturing international coalition and UN Security Council, Gore would have probably continued the policy of Iraqi containment which, after all, had worked well in destroying Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and preventing attacks on neighbouring countries and on the Kurds. Bush’s personality and political philosophy, therefore, played a decisive role in his decision to wage war on Iraq.
September 11 also represented an excellent opportunity for Tony Blair, who was already on good personal terms with Bush; 9/11 was seen as a repudiation of the Major government’s squandering of the advantages of the special relationship and of cutting British military spending, and as a chance to consolidate and promote Britain’s global role as defender of its own interests, as leader of Europe and a loyal ally of the United States in fighting terrorism. A ‘stream of personal notes from the prime minister to the president’ flowed across the Atlantic, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. According to Peter Riddell, the Bush–Blair correspondence is comparable to that of the original founders of the special relationship: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. That special character was evidenced on 20 September 2001, when Bush outlined to his National Security Council ‘America’s determination to win the war [on terror].’ America would respond robustly, to Al-Qaeda and ‘our enemies’, Bush promised (and in so doing ‘we will set the tone for future presidents’), that ‘Two years from now only the Brits may be with us’ (emphasis added).2 The loyalty of Blair’s government, during America’s darkest hour, was taken as read.
To Blair, 9/11 changed everything. To opponents of the war on Iraq, Blair shot back: ‘It’s all very well being a pacifist . . . But to be a pacifist after September 11, that’s something different. It’s all new now: terrible threat, terrorist weapons, terrorist states. That is what people here have to understand.’3 In this belief, he and George W. Bush were agreed. Blair commented that: ‘We have come to that conclusion from different political traditions, different ideological directions’, but they would work together to persuade others to see it that way too.4
During this process, Tony Blair stuck to his central principle: stay close to the Americans, thereby remaining influential in Washington DC. No public criticism of US policy. Hang tough, despite public protests, criticisms, ministerial resignations and public inquiries. Despite publicly stating a commitment to war only after a second UN resolution, Blair backed US unilateralism when it became clear that the UN Security Council would not sanction the use of force.
Yet there were important political and ideological differences to overcome. How did they overcome them? What role did their world-views play in bringing them together on policies to be pursued post-9/11—that is, wars on Afghanistan and Iraq? Is theirs a ‘marriage of convenience’, based on opportunism? Or is it based largely on power politics, as Robin Cook claims? It is argued below that significant shared features of Bush’s and Blair’s backgrounds and development account for the strength of their alliance.
Blair was educated at ‘the Eton of Scotland’—Fettes College—which had been the alma mater of the fictional spy, James Bond, and of the real-life spy, Robert Lockhart-Bruce, who had been imprisoned in Russia during the Russian Revolution, accused of attempting to assassinate Lenin. Founded in 1870, Fettes was an English-style public school in Scotland which, Blair later noted, was driven by ‘a powerful sense of duty and . . . inspirational teaching’, fitting students ‘to carry into the future the torch of liberal values, duty and open-mindedness first lit back in 1870’.
Fettes College, founded in the middle of Queen Victoria’s long reign, a few years before she was grandly unveiled by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli as the Empress of India, bore all the hallmarks of the self-confidence of its era. It reflected the ‘muscular Christianity of the new age’, the desire to create through a Spartan spirit men who would build and run the Empire.
Fettes College may have contributed significantly to planting the seeds of Blair’s later ‘conversion’ to Christian socialism. As the college’s official historian emphasises, Fettes was home to a ‘pioneering spirit and interest in social reform . . . [a] brand of mild Christian socialism’. In fact, the college drew praise from William E. Gladstone, the Prime Minister in whose footsteps, as a social moralist, Tony Blair has followed.
Blair was a natural sportsman, captaining the school cricket and basketball teams. Again, in this the college, and Blair, followed the nineteenth century tradition of promoting sports for building muscles and character, for channelling aggression. Even in Blair’s time, life at Fettes was Calvinistic, ‘rigorous’ and based on a ‘strenuous ethic’. He was also a fairly accomplished thespian, drawing excellent reviews for stage performances, skills he developed further in his ‘gap year’ as a wannabe rock star in London. He knew how to work a crowd. Fettes, having spawned two Conservative chancellors of the exchequer (Iain Macleod and Selwyn Lloyd), was known as ‘a nursery of politicians’. Blair has cemented that reputation.
In many ways, Bush’s schooling mirrored Blair’s. Phillips Academy, Andover, was also elitist, formal and physically demanding. It was founded by Calvinists, a tough academy, ‘a rigorous institution with a survival-of-the-fittest ethos’. Its then headmaster, John Kemper, had been to West Point and was descended from eleven generations of soldiers. Andover was a ‘steely’ place where there were physical fitness tests and compulsory building-climbing exercises, and where boys, with hands strapped, were thrown into a pool for up to thirty five minutes, to encourage them to swim! Muscular Christianity was not on the curriculum at Andover but it was the ‘ghost in the machine’, in the very (cold) New England air. Bush suffered at Andover, an academically rigorous institution, but worked reasonably hard and, in addition to leading the cheerleading, joined the Phillips Society which helped with local community projects. He was carrying on an old east coast tradition of voluntary public service, values that Andover sought to instil and which his parents had encouraged by their own example in Midland, Texas.
If Bush did not exploit the academic advantages of Andover, it turned out to be the setting for the early development of a reasonably coherent conservative world-view. Judging from the evidence of biographies and his autobiography, the only book in addition to the Bible that Bush ever read is Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, published in 1960. Goldwater’s book opposed black civil rights legislation (specifically, the desegregation of black and white schools and neighbourhoods), supported states’ rights (the traditional defence of slavery and of racial segregation), proposed rolling back federal governmental bureaucracy, cutting taxes, reducing welfare, and aggressively curbing Soviet power.5 According to his Andover room-mate, Bush had read enough to explain Goldwater’s conservatism and say why his family thought it was so interesting.
The chapter on ‘The Soviet Menace’ in Goldwater’s tract repays reading; it is an aggressive call for rolling back international communism, rather than ‘appeasing’ it or ‘negotiating’ with it. After 1945, Goldwater explains, we (the United States) ‘were not only master of our own destiny; we were master of the world. . . . The most powerful nation the world had ever known.’ (The parallel positions of the USA in 1945 and 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed, are clear.) By 1960, however, ‘we are in clear and imminent danger of being overwhelmed by alien forces’. There is a revolutionary movement that is bent on global domination, ‘that operates conspiratorially in the heart of our defenses . . . [with] an ideology that imbues its adherents with a sense of historical mission’. (If for communism we substitute Islamic terrorism or fundamentalism, the parallels between 1960 and the post-9/11 era are obvious.) Our goal, Goldwater argues, must be ‘victory’ over communism, not negotiation or surrender, and we must be willing to wage war (using limited tactical and strategic nuclear weapons as necessary), within a modernised military, in order to achieve it. The United Nations, Goldwater claimed, is in part a ‘Communist organisation’ and is of limited value. In the struggle for victory over communism, we must view ‘the UN as a possible means to that end’, and not an end in itself.
The young George W. Bush read this book in enough detail to be able to outline its message to a school friend. He read it in his own time, when normally he would be out playing baseball or stick-ball or leading the Andover boys at cheerleading. Its influence should not be overstated but neither should it be dismissed. It suggests that Bush was beginning to form the basis of a coherent conservative world-view, and that that outlook was introduced by his parents. Bush Sr was, indeed, a Goldwater conservative, running such a campaign in his bid for the US Congress in 1964. Bush’s politics developed within his family’s Republicanism and at a much earlier stage than Blair’s, who only really became ‘political’ at Oxford University.
Blair: Oxford and the Development of his Religious Politics
Blair’s university education was at St John’s College, Oxford, where he read law. Although he graduated and went on to become a London barrister, Oxford actually better prepared him for a career in politics by providing the context of the future Prime Minister’s religious politics.
Blair claims to be a Christian socialist, an ethical socialist in the traditions of R. H. Tawney, A. H. Halsey and many other labour philosophers and leaders.6 Unlike most or possibly all other Labour Prime Ministers, however, Blair wears his beliefs on his sleeve. Indeed, he declared in 1996 that ‘Jesus was a moderniser’, alluding to some perceived divine legitimacy of the New Labour ‘project’ to transform British politics and the Labour party. For Blair, religious beliefs are not just for Sunday church but for everyday life, including political life. In his view, Jesus stood for equality, social justice and fairness, and is the model for Blair’s own vision of how a just society ought to be ordered and led. He is the disciple of a now-forgotten Scottish philosopher, John Macmurray, whose ideas were introduced to Blair at Oxford by Peter Thompson, an Australian fellow student and former priest. Macmurray argued that traditional liberalism often began with the isolated individual who, for self-interest, developed a sense of community for utilitarian ends. The society was just the sum of its individuals. Macmurray argued that the individual is, in part, a product of social relationships, of a community. In the relationship between the community and the individual, both owe each other social obligations. The community looks after the individual, but the individual must also serve the community; there are rights and duties. There is a human impulse, according to this view, to serve, to do our duty to the community.7
To Blair, Macmurray may well have been his first glimpse of the ‘third way’ that he later championed. Macmurray, according to Blair, confronted the ‘critical political question of the twenty-first century: the relationship between the individual and society’. While the twentieth century saw the rise of state intervention and welfare states, to fight poverty and deprivation, followed by a reaction to them in New Right individualism (Thatcherism and Reaganomics), the new millennium’s problem is how to ‘construct a new settlement for individual and society today. We have reached the limits of narrow selfish individualism; but have learnt the mistakes that collective power can make.’ A middle ground, between an all-powerful nanny state and selfish individualism must be found and implemented in the real world. Macmurray’s Christian socialism was a philosophy connected with the world, ‘not an abstraction from it’, a great strength, Blair argues, in finding ‘spiritual meaning’ without a ‘retreat from reason’. Philosophy, ‘to be at all relevant . . . must either increase an understanding of the world or our ability to change it’, Blair contends, and Macmurray’s thought passes both tests with ‘flying colours’.8
Macmurray was himself heavily influenced by the Oxford philosopher T. H. Green, whose teachings were immensely influential at the turn of the twentieth century. Green’s thought influenced a whole generation of social reformers and politicians, especially in the Liberal party, encouraging them to abandon laissez-faire and espouse a more activist state. A generation of young men from England’s elite public schools were inspired to help the poor in London and elsewhere by Green’s thought. Social service in the real world would contribute to a more virtuous society. The 1906 parliamentary Liberal party contained 23 Greenians, four of whom were in the Cabinet.
Green’s contribution to late Victorian and Edwardian thought and politics lies in his ability to square a circle for evangelical Protestants in the wake of Charles Darwin’s scientific explanations of the origins of species and their impact on modern progressive thinkers. Science appeared to undermine the very foundations of Christian religious belief, especially for those evangelicals who considered themselves ‘modern’ and forward looking. What could they do to further the kingdom of God if there were no such thing? And what would they do with all that missionary, evangelical emotion and zeal that they felt and contained? Green provided the answer: God is in each and every one and in every social institution. The religious must try with all their might to perfect the kingdom of God on earth, must work to improve themselves and purge society of all its ills. History, in fact, was a progressive development of attempts to attain societal perfection—that is, the realisation of godliness in personal and social life. Believers must work to eradicate poverty and want, hunger and ill-health, illiteracy and corruption, and create a better society. In effect, Green’s philosophy gave to well born, privileged Christian men and women, suffering crises of faith and conscience because of the rise of scientific thought, a viable approach to the world that was both active and in the service of God.9 Green’s philosophy was outward looking, suggesting that happiness, ‘such as goes along with being a great man’, could only be attained ‘by having wide thoughts, and much feeling for the rest of the world; and this happiness often brings so much pain with it, that we can only tell it from pain by its being what we would choose before everything else, because our souls see it as good’.10
Unwittingly, Green created and strengthened the philosophical basis of a number of political movements, including ‘New Liberalism’—rejection of laissez-faire, promotion of an activist state—and of the rise of more left-wing, socialistic tendencies such as the Fabian Society and the Labour Representation Committee and, ultimately, the Labour party. Among the young men and women who were part of this movement were people like Arnold Toynbee, the great reformer (Toynbee Hall), and future Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee. While he was at Fettes, a similar impulse led Blair to run a summer camp for a boys’ club and perform voluntary work in the local community.
Through Macmurray, Tony Blair is a descendant of that very tradition. What is more, he knows a great deal of the history of New Liberalism, where he stands in relation to it and how his own ‘third way’ and ‘New Labour-ism’ is its present-day equivalent. In New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, Blair acknowledges the radical character of New Liberalism, a philosophy led by ‘transitional figures, spanning the period from one dominant ethic to another’. Like them, Blair seeks to engineer ‘far-reaching social reform’, to preside over a political era that bears comparison with the radical Liberal governments of 1906–14, an era that saw, among other things, reform of the House of Lords. In his call for a ‘crusade for change’, it is clear that the hand of history bears down on Tony Blair and on his mission to modernise Britain: after all, ‘Jesus was a moderniser’ too!11
Blair’s Christianity is active and alive in his political and social life. Such belief has its radical, critical side—it questions the way things are, demands change and improvement. As Blair wrote in an article in the Daily Telegraph in 1996, being a Christian means ‘you see the need for change around you and accept your duty to do something’. To Blair, Christianity is also:
a very tough religion . . . It places a duty, an imperative on us to reach our better self and to care about creating a better community to live in. . . . It is judgemental. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad . . . [although] it has become fashionable to be uncomfortable about such language. But when we look at our world today and how much needs to be done, we should not hesitate to make such judgements. And then follow them with determined action. That would be Christian socialism. (emphasis added)12
Blair’s references to the utility of Jesus in everyday life suggest something of the southern US evangelical Protestant.
There is also, of course, a strong strain of Gladstonian moralism in Blair’s global outlook, as noted by Peter Clarke and Timothy Garton Ash. That combined well with the rising centre-left sentiment during the 1990s favouring humanitarian interventionism, especially with reference to events in the Balkans. Activist writers like David Rieff and the International Commission on Interventionism and State Sovereignty—of which the now Harvard scholar Michael Ignatieff was a member, championed the cause of people suffering from the brutal excesses within states, beyond the reach of international law and the United Nations.13 According to David Rieff, such tendencies, however, have been appropriated by political forces—such as the American neo-conservatives in the Bush administration and by Tony Blair—that are far more imperialistic in their outlook and who have used the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention in a range of cases, such as Kosovo and Iraq, that fall beyond the original thinking behind the strategy.
There is also something telling in Blair’s belief that Pontius Pilate is the second most interesting character in the Bible, which he reads daily. According to Blair, Pilate faced the age-old moral dilemma of every political leader: he had to choose between killing someone who had done nothing wrong and maintaining social peace among the Jews of Palestine. He chose death for Christ and social peace, averting feared rioting and rebellion if he had chosen the other alternative. This is telling about Blair: he knows that politics and international relations, by extension, are to do with hard choices, and that every political leader will have to dirty their hands. Politics is not for those unable to make hard choices. He chooses to be a politician willing to do the least worst thing when choices are available, explaining at least something about his relations with world leaders, particularly George W. Bush. There is pain involved in doing the right thing, or the least wrong thing.
Bush: a Charge to Keep
That George W. Bush should take the title of his memoir--A Charge to Keep—from a hymn is unsurprising. It tells us how deeply religious he is and how far his religious and racial views and his right-wing Republican politics are enmeshed. A sermon in 1998 by a southern Methodist preacher Mark Craig ‘pushed’ him to run for the presidency, to rise to the challenge despite the comfort of his gubernatorial life in Texas. Believing that there is a ‘divine plan that supersedes all human plans’, and that his Christian faith has freed him to trust his own heart, Bush feels empowered to take ‘decisions that others might not like . . . even though it may not poll well’. Making moral judgements, therefore, is a duty, according to Bush, as America needs spiritual renewal in order for it to live up to its promise. Upon Saddam Hussein’s removal from power by Anglo-American forces in 2003, Bush declared that ‘freedom is the almighty God’s gift to every person, every man and woman who lives in this world’, and, by implication, that the United States and its commander-in-chief were only doing God’s work.
Bush’s faith was renewed after his fortieth birthday. He gave up alcohol and found Jesus, influenced by the Revd Billy Graham. Reading a special ‘one-year Bible’—with a daily reading from across the Bible, Bush also joined a men’s Bible reading group. Moral personal behaviour, he claims, became part of his code of conduct and his politics. If Tony Blair traces his philosophy back to John Macmurray, Bush’s harks back to the very personage of Jesus Christ, which plays well with America’s evangelicals. According to George W. Bush, a non-Christian cannot go to heaven.
Despite Bush’s own Methodist affiliations, the religious right constitutes his political core support. The melding of religious fundamentalism into mainstream politics has been made possible by the right’s championing of the ‘cultural’ issue—like abortion, school prayer, gay rights, welfare dependency—and elevating it to the level of national politics. Bush has overtly and covertly pandered to the religious right. His choice of an anti-Catholic institution, Bob Jones University, which had also until recently forbidden interracial dating, for an election campaign speech, was a good example.
In American politics, the religious right and racial prejudice are strongly connected, both historically and today. George W.’s religious politics, therefore, emerge from the historically segregationist culture of west Texas and the rest of the Deep South. According to Meinig’s study of Texan cultural history;
The population of the region is perhaps the purest example of the ‘native white Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ culture in Texas. . . . Emancipated from the narrowest folk expressions of southern fundamentalism, it remains thoroughly within and indeed gives much leadership to the mainstream of Southern Protestant development . . . The undiluted Southern background has made it a routinely segregationist society. In the past the Ku Klux Klan found strong support.14
The Republican voters who backed Bush are, Michael Lind claims, ‘the political and sometimes lineal’ descendants of traditional ‘Southern Democrats’.
Lind also points out in great detail that the region that nurtured George W. Bush was saturated in the culture and politics of the Deep South, a region that bears the hallmarks of its largest ‘tribe’, the Anglo-Celts. The latter derived from Scottish Protestants implanted by the English on Ulster’s Catholic soil to colonise Ireland. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, some of their number engaged in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Cherokee Indians. ‘The swaggering Texan’, Lind suggests, ‘is nothing more than the Scots-Irish frontiersman’. Having historical experience of dispossessing Catholics in Ulster and Native Americans in the United States, the militaristic Anglo-Celts made disproportionate inroads into the South and into the American military. Their culture, according to Meinig, is:
individualistic and egalitarian, optimistic and utilitarian, volatile and chauvinistic, ethnocentric and provincial. . . . There is an easy acceptance of equality among one’s own kind but a rigid sense of superiority over other local peoples, and a deep suspicion of outsiders as threats to the social order. The narrow moral strictures of Protestant fundamentalism are accepted as an ideal moral code . . .
Further, Meinig argues that Texans regard other religious and racial groups ‘as natural adjuncts, to be firmly locked into patterns of residential segregation, social discrimination, political subservience, and economic dependence’. Too sophisticated and well educated ‘to express overt racial and religious bigotry’, modern WASP Texans nevertheless retain an imperial mindset, a belief in their inherent superiority, and their historical Anglophilia.
Blair’s Imperial Mindset
The foreign policy of the ‘New Liberals’—such as almost the entire leadership of the imperialist Round Table movement and of its offspring, Chatham House—was to strengthen the bonds of the British Empire through imperial reform and alliance (and even federation) with the United States.15 The underlying rationale was founded on a racialised world-view based on Anglo-Saxon biological and cultural superiority. By the Second World War, the desire among some sections of British and American elite opinion was for a federal union between Britain and its dominions and the United States, and the Scandinavian democracies. This was proposed, in very large part, on the basis that Anglo-Saxons, and one or two Nordic peoples, were uniquely suited to good government, efficient administration, economic strength, and to protection of the rights of the individual. The evangelical, missionary zeal that inspired domestic political and social reform in Britain had its overseas counterpart in imperial reform and Anglo-Saxonism.
The point here relating to Tony Blair is that such ideas, in an evolved and more ‘sophisticated’ form, are back in circulation today and are winning support in leading policy circles in Britain and the United States. The Blair government’s attachment, albeit an initially reluctant one, to an ‘ethical dimension’ in foreign policy—the number of Christian socialists in its ranks, including Straw, Blunkett, Brown, Boateng etc., provides some indication—is an echo of the ‘idealism’ that accompanied early twentieth century Anglo-Saxonism. Tony Blair, in his single foreign policy speech during the election campaign of 1997, had wanted to say: ‘I am proud of the British Empire’, but was prevented by aides from doing so at the last minute.16 In the same speech, Blair declared that he was a proud British patriot who loves his country and would ensure that it ‘provide[s] leadership to the world’.
At another speech, as Prime Minister, to the Lord Mayor’s banquet in November 1997, Blair set out his vision for Britain and the world, so that its ‘standing in the world . . . [would] grow and prosper’. Britain’s principal strength is its ability to use its historical alliances so that ‘others listen’. ‘I value and honour our history enormously’, Blair emphasised. The fact that Britain had an Empire—about which ‘a lot of rubbish [is] talked’—should be cause of neither apology nor hand wringing; rather it must be used to further Britain’s global influence—through the Commonwealth and through the power of the English language. Britain must look outward, as the world’s second largest importer and exporter of foreign investment. What goes on in the rest of the world is, therefore, of vital importance. Britain must rebuild the special relationship with the United States, which the Major government had wrecked, Blair argued. ‘When Britain and America work together on the international scene there is little we cannot achieve.’ We are ‘the bridge between the US and Europe’:
We must never forget the historic or continuing US role in defending the political and economic freedoms we take for granted. Leaving all sentiment aside, they are a force for good in the world. They can always be relied on when the chips are down. The same should always be true of Britain. (emphasis added)
More broadly, Blair continued, ‘By virtue of our geography, our history and the strengths of our people, Britain is a global player. We need strong defence . . . It is an instrument of influence . . . We must not reduce our capability to exercise a role on the international stage.’ In exercising a global role, Britain would use its influence to promote ‘the values and aims we believe in’, such as fighting crime, terrorism, human rights abuse. When human rights—which ‘may sometimes seem an abstraction in the comfort of the West’—‘are ignored, human misery and political instability all too easily follow’ (emphasis added). The speech highlighted the extent to which Blair hoped to lead ‘our mission of national renewal’.
Given the vital role that Blair accorded to Britain’s armed forces, and his declaration of loyalty to the United States, Kampfner argues that he was a man on a global mission, ‘determined to show that he—a Labour Prime Minister—could, and would, do wars. If Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher could do them, so could he.’ Blair’s sense of mission, however, was given a critical edge by his critique of the wasted opportunities of the Major years—alienation from Europe and damage to Anglo-American relations—when more could have been done to build a stronger basis for a post-Cold-War world order.
That sense of spurned opportunities presented itself again in a series of essays, Re-Ordering the World, to which Blair contributed a Foreword. In the introductory article, Mark Leonard reiterated the critique. This time, George Bush Sr’s dangerous attachment to ‘stability—supporting discredited regimes in Yugoslavia and Somalia and leaving Saddam Hussein in power at the same time as preaching the virtues of liberal democracy’, was blamed for the rise of al-Qaeda. ‘Bin Laden is an aftershock of the mistakes made after 1989’, Leonard asserts. It is time to realise that the world has changed, that 9/11 offers new opportunities to rebuild the world order, to further the concept of international community and to promote security.17
The Foreign Office diplomat Robert Cooper offers a further insight to the new thinking about world affairs. Cooper argues that the world needs a ‘new liberal imperialism’, an era of (voluntary) colonial rule by the world’s most advanced countries—the postmodern nations—over those nations that are defined as ‘pre-modern’. The latter, also referred to as ‘failed states’, ‘rogue states’ or ‘collapsed states’, are a threat—to their own peoples through the brutality of their rulers, to their region due to their expansionist urges, and ultimately to the world—especially the West—as they may develop or buy WMD and have strong links with extremist groups and terrorist organisations. As ever, those ‘within the empire [have] . . . order, culture and civilisation. Outside it [lie] . . . barbarians, chaos and disorder’. When dealing with the pre-modern world, Cooper advocates, we will ‘need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era—force, pre-emptive attack, deception’ (emphasis added). Of course, the aims of such imperialism are purely to benefit the peoples of the world—not any search for economic or mineral resources—according to Cooper.18 Under Blair’s ‘doctrine of international community’, membership and demands sacrifices and carries obligations as well as rights. Such are the obligations of postmodern states, like Britain and the United States, in playing a leading role in the international community.
Bush, Texas and Empire
That the United States must take the lead in world affairs is the established view in the American foreign policy establishment of which George W. Bush is the current political figurehead. It also chimes with the world-view of his native Texas. Here is how one prominent historian describes it:
Texans . . . think of their homeland as an ‘empire’ and to use that word as something more than just a grandiose name for a large area. . . . the Texan claim is substantial. . . . For . . . if ‘empire’ implies not only a relative size, but a history of conquest, expansion, and dominion over a varied realm, and not only an outward movement of people, but the thrust of a self-confident aggressive people driven by a strong sense of superiority and destiny, then Texans can reasonably claim a strongly ‘imperial’ history and character.19 (emphasis added)
George W. Bush is steeped in the culture, folkways and habits of mind of Texas, specifically of west Texas. As a result, one cannot understand the personality, political style and beliefs of George W. Bush without reference to Texan culture. But very importantly, it is the marriage of the east coast establishment’s globalism, Texan imperialism, and New York’s mainly Jewish neo-conservatives’ democratising mission, that George W. Bush represents, recasting and strengthening the social, regional, ethnic and ideological composition of the American foreign policy establishment.
At the White House, he proceeded to recruit many of his father’s own political and national security advisers to guide him in the turbulent international politics of the twenty-first century. George W.’s foreign policies, however, cannot entirely be laid at his father’s door: the men known as ‘crazies’ or ‘madmen’ in Bush Sr’s administration (1988–1992), such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Cheney, are no longer peripheral figures but central to President Bush’s strategy. George W. shares many of their neo-conservative ideas and much of their outlook as it fits well with Texas’s ‘military-tinged patriotism’, linking his commitment to ‘minimal government at home and a bellicose foreign policy abroad with religious fundamentalism’. Support for the most right-wing elements within Israel lies at the heart of southern Protestant fundamentalism.
Condoleeza Rice, Richard Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and George P. Shultz were among the most prominent advisers to Bush during campaign 2000. Bush self-deprecatingly declared in 1999 that ‘I am smart enough to know what I don’t know, and I have good judgement about who will either be telling me the truth, or has got some agenda that is not the right agenda.’ Belonging to a new right-wing think tank, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), many of Bush’s advisers were, and are, radical or neo-conservatives who believe in a more ‘muscular and nakedly assertive’ US foreign policy, including invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, to end ‘a sense of drift’ in America’s engagement with the world.
Even the so-called moderate conservative Condoleeza Rice was a Bush campaign co-chairwoman in California and a senior fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. Other Hoover advisers to Bush included Shultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State, and Martin Anderson, a former Nixon and Reagan policy adviser. Furthermore, the ‘dovish’ (former) Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is a long-time champion of ‘taking out’ so-called rogue states. As head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Bush senior administration, Powell developed the ‘two-war fighting strategy’ to replace the containment of the Soviet threat as the strategy of US foreign policy. This strategy, developed in the early 1990s, had already designated Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Libya and Pakistan as actual or potential ‘rogue states’. Rather than be hijacked by anyone, Bush has surrounded himself with the kind of experienced people with the expertise to accomplish his own radical conservative goals to assert American power, to challenge emerging rival powers, especially China, and to deal with so-called rogue states. His links with the Hoover Institution—which had been ‘a beacon . . . to those fighting a holy war against communism’—reflect his own conservatism and anti-communism.
As presidential candidate, Bush wrote in his autobiography that one of the lessons of his gubernatorial experience was that enacting a radical programme required a sense of crisis. ‘The status quo is powerful’, he argued, ‘especially juxtaposed with fear of the unknown.’ He also learned, that ‘Texans appreciated bold leadership’. Bush recognised that America is ‘the world’s only remaining superpower, and we must use our power in a strong but compassionate way to help keep the peace and encourage the spread of freedom’. Freedom, like American goods and services, was a value ripe for export: ‘This is still a world of terror’, he wrote in 1999, ‘and missiles and madmen. And America’s military is challenged by aging weapons, low morale, and failing intelligence. To keep the peace, we must rebuild America’s military power.’ The world today requires ‘tough realism. . . . Firmness with regimes like North Korea and Iraq, regimes that hate our values and resent our success.’ America is in a desperate position, as a result of the ‘years of drift’, with military spending down to levels below those just prior to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The lesson of Vietnam, for Bush, was that America should be slow to engage in military action but ‘when we do so, we must do so with ferocity’. ‘America must seize the moment’, Bush declared in his memoir. ‘America must lead. We must give our prosperity a greater purpose, a purpose of peace and freedom and hope. We are a great nation of good and loving people. And together we have a charge to keep.’
Bush and Blair: Soul Brothers?
Tony Blair and George W. Bush share much in common, therefore, in terms of some aspects of their outlook. In the realm of foreign affairs, both developed a critique of the ‘years of drift’, of opportunities missed after 1989, believing that such drift led to 9/11. Both argued that previous administrations had dangerously run down their nations’ military power, spurned opportunities to deal with rogue states, and presided over greater global insecurity. Their pre-9/11 ideas and approaches suited them to react in the way that they did—robustly and militarily. Both also supported ‘firm’ action in the Middle East. In 1998, Blair, without European backing, supported bombing Iraq and an alleged chemical weapons factory in Khartoum, Sudan. At the time, Blair argued that there was ‘compelling evidence’ of chemical weapons production at the Al Shifa plant. Six months later, after the weapons claims had been refuted, Blair declared that the attack had been justified as no one had been killed and, more importantly, the bombing had signalled to terrorists everywhere that ‘we are prepared if necessary to take action in retaliation’.20 This appears to be the same logic that Tony Blair used at the 2003 Labour party conference when justifying the war on Iraq in spite of the failure to find the WMD that were the publicly stated reason for war. Despite this, the war was worth fighting because, Blair claimed, it toppled a vicious dictatorship and, in the longer run, made pressuring Iran and North Korea much easier. A war waged in defiance of France, Russia and Germany, among many states, is justified as it demonstrates Anglo-American resolve aggressively to wage war. This is the logic of militarism and of imperial powers, indicative of the ‘rougher methods’ recommended in the era of the ‘new imperialism’.
In terms of their backgrounds, Bush and Blair share a privileged private school education within schools that were rough, tough and Calvinistic, solid examples of the philosophy of muscular Christianity. Their religiosity plays a key role in their personal and political lives, as does their sense of historical mission and duty, their determination to make a difference, to change their country’s position in the world and to punish aggressors and terrorists, and to reorder the world. Their political-diplomatic styles also suggest some similarities—evangelical vigour, missionary zeal, and an almost Manichean division of the world into friends and enemies, good and evil. Robin Cook’s view is that the Bush-Blair envangelicalism is the reason for their sticking with Iraq WMD claims and al-Qaeda links. ‘Number 10 [Downing Street] believed in the intelligence because they desperately wanted it to be true. Their sin was not one of bad faith but of evangelical certainty.’ Their politics—Blair’s centre-right affiliations in the Labour party and Bush’s ‘compassionate’ conservatism—also permit a degree of shared ground, especially in their notions of strengthening communities, particularly in a moral sense.
Blair’s ‘New Labour’ agenda has consciously been modelled on the ‘New Liberals’ of a century ago, a radical reordering of national politics, electorates and priorities. Blair’s sense of history takes in the highs and lows of the special relationship and how history might see him. Would he be a Churchill or Macmillan, or an Eden? For good or bad, Blair is a ‘war prime minister’, ready to pay the ‘blood price’ for Britain’s close alliance with the United States. While Bush’s consciousness of history is, by contrast, somewhat less developed, his own family’s history—especially that of his parents and grandfather—is seared with the hallmarks of the Progressive era of the early twentieth century: the commitment to public service, and in particular to a sense of community, moral renewal and exporting American values. While Tony Blair is not of the right he, rather than John Major, is often considered the true heir of the Thatcher revolution. Both Bush and Blair, in their respective current positions on the political spectrum, stand further to the right than when they first entered politics.
Related to their political-historical vision and backgrounds is what appears to be a neo-imperial resurgence in Anglo-America and in the thought of Bush, Blair and their respective advisers. New Liberalism and Progressivism, it must be remembered, shared an imperial agenda.21 Behind or with Blair stand men such as Robert Cooper, Jonathan Powell and the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC), while behind and with Bush stand men (and a woman) such as Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleeza Rice and the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).22 The Bush-Blair neo-imperial push represents a worrying development for third world states, where most of the world’s people live, for authentic international organisations, for the citizens and taxpayers of the advanced states, and for the political culture of modern democracies that grapple with running an empire on the ‘rougher’ methods of a bygone era—the methods of cruelty, deception, military pre-emption and preventive war. Although these tendencies came to broad public attention after 9/11, their origins preceded that cataclysmic event, and constitute a major source of the amity between Bush and Blair.
It must be remembered, however, that Bush’s and Blair’s outlooks are not identical—especially in regard to the role of the free market. Neither do their numerous similarities exhaust reasons for the levels of cooperation between Britain and the United States. There are long-term strategic, economic and other interests that push Britain towards supporting the United States in world affairs, and policy is made not entirely by Tony Blair—there is a large state apparatus charged with that responsibility. But as leaders go, Bush and Blair have come closely to form, represent and lead certain important tendencies within their respective state bureaucracies, and have articulated a new vision for their countries that has mobilised the top levels of their foreign policymaking personnel, the leaders of the opposition political parties and, to varying extents, important sections of public opinion.
Their numerous political skills have been put to the test since 9/11 in particular and, it may fairly be said, they have, in their own terms, done reasonably well thus far. They appear to have ridden their respective domestic political storms over non-existent Iraqi WMD, with Bush winning re-election in 2004. As for Blair, he remains the most popular party leader while his party led the Conservatives by 3 percentage points in the polls in March 2005. Even those members of the United Nations that most vigorously opposed the Iraq war—including France and Russia—are yielding to American efforts to mobilise the UN to help reconstruct that war-torn country. But most importantly, they have set the domestic and global agendas: it is highly likely that future leaders will find their own range of options for change severely limited. There appears to be a strong basis for a new, enduring bipartisan foreign policy consensus behind policies of fighting terrorism, and reordering the world, that owes its origins to the strength of cooperation between Tony Blair and George W. Bush.
Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of International Politics, and Co-Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies, at City University London. Follow him on Twitter and via his blog.
1 Gary C. Jacobson, ‘Terror, terrain and turnout: explaining the 2002 midterm elections’, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 118, no. 1, 2003, pp. 1–22.
2 Bob Woodward, Bush at War, London, Pocket Books, 2003, p. 106.
3 Peter Stothard, 30 Days: A Month at the Heart of Blair’s War, London, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, p. 7.
4 Stothard, ibid., p. 70.
5 Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative, Shepherdsville KY, Victor Publishing, 1960.
6 Alan Wilkinson, Christian Socialism: Scott Holland to Tony Blair, London, SCM Press, 1998, p. 42.
7 Philip Conford, ed., The Personal World: John Macmurray on Self and Society, Edinburgh, Floris Books, 1996.
8 Blair, Foreword to Conforth, ibid.
9 Melvin Richter, ‘T. H. Green and his audience: liberalism as a surrogate faith’, Review of Politics, vol. 18, no. 4, 1956, p. 467.
10 Richter, ibid. p. 463.
11 Tony Blair, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, London, Fourth Estate, 1996, p. 15.
12 Tony Blair, Foreword to Christopher Bryant, ed., Reclaiming the Ground, London, Spire, 1994, p. 12.
13 David Rieff, Interview: Conversations with History, Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 11 March 2003.
14 D. W. Meinig, Imperial Texas, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981, pp. 104–5.
15 Inderjeet Parmar, Think Tanks and Power in Foreign Policy, London, Palgrave, 2004.
16 John Kampfner, Blair’s Wars, London, Free Press, 2003, p. 4.
17 Mark Leonard, ed., Re-Ordering the World, London, The Foreign Policy Centre, 2002, pp. x–xii.
18 Robert Cooper, ‘The post-modern state,’ in Leonard, Re-Ordering the World, pp.11–20.
19 D. W. Meinig, Imperial Texas: An Interpretative Essay in Cultural Geography, Austin and London, University of Texas Press, 1969, p. 7.
20 John Rentoul, Tony Blair. Prime Minister, London, Time Warner, 2001, p. 424.
21 William E. Leuchtenberg, ‘Progressivism and imperialism: the progressive movement and American foreign policy, 1898–1916’, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 39, 1952–1953.
22 For more on the PNAC, see Inderjeet Parmar, ‘Catalysing events, think tanks and American foreign policy shifts’, Government and Opposition, 40,1, 2005, pp.1-25.
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